MARIA S. PICONE, Managing Editor
A Conversation with Esperanza Cintrón
Cover image: “Girl on Boulder,” by Julian Wong, watercolor and ink, 12 x 6.5 inches, 2022
MP: Welcome! I’m here with Esperanza Cintrón, the author of the new CR chapbook Boulders and the runner-up of our 2022 Poetry Chapbook Contest. Esperanza, we absolutely love your poetry! Your work immediately grabbed me by the throat from the beginning and there’s a strong artistic imagining from the title Boulders: Detroit Nature Poems and the excerpt from A Divertimento for Rocks that starts off the collection. So, clearly you had a strong artistic vision going into this chapbook—can you tell us a bit about where that came from and what the genesis of that was like?
EC: It’s sort of freeform—I got this idea (which is in the blurb at the beginning) that I’m in Michigan, a very nature-oriented state, with mountains, farms and so forth and then you’ve got Detroit, so, it’s like, we get a lot of nature-oriented poetry but not a lot of Detroit nature. We’ve got nature! We’ve got birds, trees, and I wanted to capture this, because you think of city and industry and the Renaissance Building, but we’re a very diverse city in terms of our ecological, geological aspects. That’s what I went into and the poems just started coming.
MP: I really think this is an ecological chapbook for today, for exactly that reason. When we think of cities we think of manmade, artificial constructs but, as we’ve seen with the climate crisis and the COVID pandemic and other things, we’re encroaching on nature, nature is encroaching on us, and we share and embody the same space. One thing that drew me to your chapbook was—not an exact quote, but Aimee Nezhukumatathil said that BIPOC poets aren’t thought of as ecological writers because they’re just associated with cities, especially the inner city,
EC: Right? Like we don’t care about the climate? About living?
MP: Yes! I see this false dichotomy all the time: this noble, generally white poet or writer in nature, like a Rachel Carson or a Henry Thoreau, the lone figure away from civilization picking out something about man, and these BIPOC people telling these stories, but it has nothing to do with nature, and I like the way this [chapbook] melds this urban landscape that’s ecological, geological, intensely human and brimming with this experience.
EC: That’s really what I was trying to capture. We as human beings are part of that whole thing. In Detroit we lost so much of the actual buildings—a lot of stuff was razed and torn down because we didn’t have the money to keep it up so part of the land did go feral, if you will—it started to forest, to grow in the city. I grew up in a city that of one and a half million people and we were number one in individual homeowners so there were all these beautiful brick homes and all these plots. Now if you go there, whole blocks have been razed, and the city, because it’s been gentrified, is keeping the grass cut low, but there used to be little forests, and you could go down the block and see trees that had sprouted, and all kinds of growth. I mention these types of growth in my chapbook like crabgrass and all kinds of other things that actually took over the city. To me, that’s phenomenal, that Mother Nature, God, the spirits, the powers all said “Hey! I’m going to let my other children, plants and animals, do what they do.” It made me begin to understand how little we are. How little we mean in the scheme of things. It’s probably Nostradamus-like but I don’t mean it that way. I mean that we should wake up and recognize that we have to coexist.
MP: I love that—that’s exactly what I see in these poems—a crowdedness, but it’s alive, and we’re so small, but then everything else is raised to that level: the crabgrass and us. We are on this equal playing field in this Detroit landscape. A polyphony of characters with an urban focus, but some of the characters are natural things.
EC: One of my favorite characters in my poetry is the possum that’s staring me down—it represents all that is nature. It’s like, “Really? I’m here too” and it’s based on a real thing that happened because it’s dark, not a lot of streetlights, but I could see that possum’s red eyes. I’m sitting in a car, all that steel around me, and I’m still scared of that possum because that possum just seemed to have some power that I needed to respect.
MP: I love how this collection takes us through that lens, defamiliarizing things in a powerful way, and we as readers have to give respect to nature, the landscape we’re embedded in, the moment we’re living in now and that’s what’s wonderful about this chapbook.
A lot of these poems are written in what we might call a breathless style, a new type of form that you’ve created: medium-length lines, one stanza, very minimal punctuation and almost no end stops. This goes to that symphony of characters—to me there’s an orchestration to these poems. Is that a technique that you honed for this chapbook specifically or is it something that characterizes a lot of your poetry?
EC: It’s a progression—my earlier poems were more traditional or standard, but it’s become more and more loose like this but for Boulders, the white space or line breaks are supposed to be the punctuation. That’s where you as a reader are meant to take your breath. If you don’t get a breath then, you’re just out of luck. I wanted to let the poems create their own rhythm. A lot of them I wrote many times and did different line breaks until I felt like the poem and the thing that needed to be said was said in its own rhythm. I had a really difficult time with the salt mines—I rewrote that poem so many times trying to get the sense of evolution.
MP: There’s so much there, right?
EC: Yes, even in the concept of how that salt formed from liquid. I was trying to speak to that sense of evolution, formation, geology as biology.
MP: There’s so many specific words to hold onto, to that idea of a whirlpool that is so much stronger and more powerful, and also more important than you.
EC: I have to thank you though, Maria, because your notes about the ending helped me to heighten it. It’s hard to know where to end because that’s a continuous process. Right now, men are down there mining this salt and selling it, but that’s only another part of the process, because eventually that will change, and I don’t know whether, with all our climate situations—earthquakes, all kinds of other ecological things that could shift—I don’t know what the next step is, but I was trying to get to the sense that this was just one step in the evolution of this piece of rock.
MP: Thank you so much for talking with me today. It was hilarious, and I’m so looking forward to seeing your chapbook in physical form in my hands and getting it out there in the world.
EC: Thank you for understanding. You made me feel like I achieved what I was trying to do, so thank you very much, Maria.
MP: Thank you so much! But I don’t think that has anything to do with me. I think that with the strength of the work, everybody’s going to see it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Esperanza Cintrón is the author of Shades, Detroit Love Stories, a 2020 Michigan Notable Book, published by Wayne State University Press. Her short story “Shadow Dancer” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She has three books of poetry: Visions of a Post-Apocalyptic Sunrise, the Naomi Long Madgett Award winner What Keeps Me Sane, and Chocolate City Latina. Cintrón’s work appears in Manteca! An Anthology of Afro-Latin@ Poets; Mamas, Martyrs, and Jezebels; Obsidian and others. She was a Callaloo Writing Fellow at Brown and Oxford Universities, the recipient of a Michigan Council for the Arts Individual Artist Grant, a National Endowment for the Humanities educator’s scholarship and has a doctorate in English literature from the State University of New York at Albany. Under the nom de plume Alegra Verde, she has written several short works of fiction many of which have been translated into various languages.
ABOUT THE COVER ARTIST
Julian Wong was born in Boston and raised in Hong Kong. As a youth in Hong Kong, Wong studied traditional Chinese painting with renowned artist Chao Shao An. He has Bachelors of Arts in Painting from the University of California at Santa Cruz and in Industrial Design from California College of Arts, San Francisco. His work appears in collections around the world and in various publications. An accomplished industrial designer, Wong is a member of the Hatch Art Studio and has worked with DDOT, Crate & Barrel and others.
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